“If sales were what mattered to me most, I would have written under my own name from the start, and with the greatest fanfare.” – J. K. Rowling on her decision to publish her crime novels under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith.
When asked why she hid her identity when submitting The Cuckoo’s Calling to publishers, J. K. Rowling, internationally acclaimed author of the Harry Potter series, explained she chose to write under a pseudonym because she was “yearning to go back to the beginning of a writing career in this new genre, to work without hype or expectation and to receive totally unvarnished feedback.”
The Cuckoo’s Calling, the first of the Cormoran Strike dectective series, sold 17,662 copies in the week following the news that it was written by Rowling. Compare that with the 1,500 print copies that were sold in the U.K. during the three months between its publication and the revelation of its author’s identity. It went from an Amazon sales rank of #4,000+ to #1 during that same week.
When Rowling published her first non-Potter book, The Casual Vacancy, she was quoted as saying that she had thought about using a pseudonym, but “I think it’s braver to do it like this.” The book sold well, but received mixed reviews. Some reviewers had difficulty getting around the idea that the creator of a series of children’s books could write an adult book about adultery, drugs, poverty, and prejudice.
Rowling had proved her point: an unknown author would have difficulty making sales, receiving unbiased reviews (or, for that matter, any reviews), or even being published (at least one publishing house turned down the manuscript of The Cuckoo’s Calling). A known author, however, especially one as accomplished and successful as the author of the Harry Potter series, would suffer only from unrealistic expectations by readers and reviewers.
[In the interest of full disclosure, I have read all four of her post-Potter books. I enjoyed The Casual Vacancy more than the naysayers, but not as much as the cheerleaders. The book began as a sharp, satirical dissection of small town class distinctions, but devolved into a melodrama. And the ending felt rushed, as though she weren’t quite sure how to develop the plot further, so she just stopped writing.
The Cormorant Strike books, on the other hand, are in my opinion, terrific. And each one is better than the previous. I had preordered the latest of the three, Career of Evil, on Kindle, and finished reading all 500+ pages within three days. I literally could not put it down, reading it while at physical therapy, in front of the TV, instead of sleeping.]
Many reviewers may have been prejudiced against Rowling – the “Don’t hate me because I’m a successful author and you’re a wannabe who writes reviews for obscure publications” syndrome – but I wonder if the opposite can be true. During the past few years, I have read several novels by authors previously on my “preorder” and “must read” lists. I wrote “previously” because, after reading these latest books, the authors are now on my “don’t bother” list.
No, I won’t name names in public. It will make me seem petty and vindictive because they are bestsellers and I’m not. But in my opinion, had they not been major authors, these books would never have made it out of the slush pile.
In the past, I’ve written about whether entry-level, poorly paid, just-out-of-college copyeditors are afraid to correct errors made by famous authors. But the problems with the books I’m referring to go far beyond typos or inconsistencies or repeated phrases. The books are poorly plotted, the characters are uninteresting, the incidents are implausible. The authors often make all the “errors” new authors are warned to avoid: prologues which could have just as easily been labeled “chapter one;” reliance on coincidence; too much back story interrupting the narrative flow; introduction of extraneous characters; subplots which have no connection to the main plot. If the manuscripts had been submitted by unknown authors, they would have been rejected without a comment. Instead, they are published and shoot to the top of the bestseller lists.
In fairness, I have to mention that even though these books garner quite a few reviews, the reviewers are often critical. So I am not the only one who has noticed the decline in quality. But the lack of positive reviews does not seem to affect sales. (So maybe I am being a bit petty and vindictive.)
So, my question is: Do we allow established authors to get away with shoddy work, while being overly critical of new ones?
While writing this blog entry, I realized the ultimate irony: J. K. Rowling was an obscure, unknown, unproven, unpublished author when she sold a manuscript, which had been rejected by eight other publishers, about an orphan who discovers he is a wizard to Bloomsbury, an independent publisher in the U.K. The book was then picked up by U.S. educational publisher Scholastic, and the rest, as they say, is the stuff that (authors’) dreams are made of.